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Historians And Empire Essay

1176 words - 5 pages

Age of Empire: Imperialism and British Society, 1868-1918

Historians and Empire

Historians have long been fascinated by empire. Perhaps the most notable example of a historian whose work on empire found widespread public as well as academic acclaim was Edward Gibbon (1737-94). His six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire set a standard that has arguably never been surpassed in terms of scope and influence. According to one biographer, ‘the Decline and Fall occupies the summit of European Enlightenment historiography’.[1] And a contemporary (twenty-first century) historian of British imperialism has written: ‘Readers expect to know whether Gibbon helps us to understand not only ...view middle of the document...

Seeley’s book proved remarkably successful, and influential. And many notable imperial administrators of this period published books, which extolled the benefits and value of British imperial rule not merely to the people of Britain, but also to those of other non-western countries.[4] But the late Victorian and Edwardian era also saw increasing public criticism of empire, for its barbarism abroad and its encouragement of investment overseas rather than in domestic (British) economy and society. In his book Imperialism: A Study (1902), J.A. Hobson argued that powerful financial interests had used their influence to create secure markets for their investments, and their profits. In The Psychology of Jingoism (1901), another work critical of empire, Hobson defined uncritical imperial sentiment as that ‘inverted patriotism whereby the love of one’s own nation is transformed into the hatred of another nation’.[5] Hobson offered a radical critique of empire that was to prove extremely influential in the development of twentieth century ‘anti-imperialist’ ideas and rhetoric.

In some ways, Hobson was representative of an already well-established tradition of British ‘anti-imperialism’ represented by the likes of Richard Cobden. Such critics might not necessarily desire the overthrow of the Empire, however, but rather its reform. Empire might still be seen, by historians and other critics, as a force for good. This idea had strong appeal at times of world crisis. In the 1920s and 1930s an ‘Empire-Commonwealth’, composed of colonies and self-governing ‘Dominions’, offered an alternative to forms of totalitarian rule. In Argument of Empire, a book published in 1943, the Australian historian Keith Hancock argued forcefully that the Empire be regarded (not least by Americans) as essential to world peace.[6]

With the growing strength of Asian and African nationalism after the Second World War, it proved difficult to sustain this view (although the Empire arguably played an important Cold War role).[7] In the 1950s the historians John Gallagher and Robert Robinson challenged Seeley’s conception of Empire ‘as an organism bound by ties of kinship and constitutional dependence’. They promoted the idea of ‘informal empire’, in which influence might count for as much as formal annexation and control.[8] In its way, this idea was to prove as influential as was Seeley’s in its day. Now we perhaps see ‘Empire’ everywhere – in terms of commerce and culture as well as in terms of geography and geopolitics.

Or do we? The arguments put forward by Edward Said, in works such as Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism...

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